From the moment Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964 espionage television show opens, it’s determined to let the audience know that they’re in for a movie soaked in ‘cool’. It’s got vintage production design that sends it’s target era popping off the screen, actors giving distinctly mannered performances, and an opening car chase that would not be out of place in a Warner Bros cartoon. Normally, a movie such as this can go one or two ways. It could embrace the natural momentum of it’s style and craft an engaging story around it, or it can lean on said energy like a crutch, leaving it’s audience with nothing to care about or remember. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. really needs to be the former, as it’s the umpteenth spy movie this year and not even the first of those to be ripped from the circuits of classic TV.
Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) is about as All-American an operative as they come. Hired by the CIA out of prison for his abilities as a master thief, Solo finds himself assigned a mission that could leave the fate of all of the world’s countries in his hands. A builder of nuclear warheads has been kidnapped by wealthy industrialist Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). It is up to Napoleon to enlist his daughter Gaby (Alicia Vikander) into re-connecting with her long lost father and reporting back to him. However, Gaby needs a fake fiance. To remedy this, the American government parlays with that of the Russians, and teams Solo up with loose-cannon KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), who is naturally at odds with the American agent’s personality and methods.
The success of Man From U.N.C.L.E. begins in the perfectly hammy performances from it’s finely tuned cast. Ritchie perfectly guides all of these actors into giving us characters who may be extreme types, but don’t feel like simple caricatures. In his first Post-Superman leading role Henry Cavill proves with distinction that he can carry a movie like this. Affecting a deliciously campy New-England accent and conducting himself with the utmost manner that he can, Cavill endears us to Solo’s blend of snark and sophistication. It only gets better once he gets to play off Hammer. While I’ve found the Lone Ranger star to be a fairly stiff screen presence in the past, here his stiffness is used to perfect effect as a simmering time-bomb who can go off at any moment. Hammer doesn’t just play Illya as a brute though, getting more than a few moments to convey that the Russian might have a few soft spots buried deep down. The strongest moments of the film are when these two get to work together and banter. The movie never tries to convince us that these two become best friends on this mission, only that they grow to tolerate and respect one another, and that’s why it works. Meanwhile, the stunning Alicia Vikander shows us that her fantastic turn in Ex Machina was no fluke, giving us a confident and punchy foil for Hammer in particular.
This is a deeply old-fashioned story that could have easily felt trite and cheesy in less skilled hands. However, Ritchie has evolved into something of a stylistic master, especially in the wake of his wildly inventive take on Sherlock Holmes. He immerses every inch of this film in the suave sensibility that made the early James Bond films such a delight, while still providing room for his more darkly comedic sensibilities to flourish. While there’s plenty of punchy banter for the cast to chew on, this sense of humor most notably comes out in the action sequences. While some of them might appear a bit generic by description, Ritchie infuses them with just enough eccentricity for them to stand out from the crowd while still feeling classy. They feel ripped straight out of a spy comic-book, especially in the moments where the quirkiness of the characters finds it’s way into the sequence. There are a couple moments in particular where humor and background action is juggled to such perfect effect, that they may end up among the best sequences of the year.
The only point where Ritchie really misses a step is in his villain. While Elizabeth Debicki certainly throws herself into the sensual, loopy character, she just comes across a bit generic. There’s never a scene where she’s really allowed to shine, most of the time coming in after the main action of the sequence in question has already occurred. She’s just nowhere near as fun or interesting as the rest of the film, and as such represents the one arm of the movie that is a bit of a slog.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a well done steak dinner with a nice glass of wine. Nothing that hasn’t been done before, but it tastes delicious and feels really classy while it’s going down. All of it’s zaniness is expertly distributed by Ritchie, and his charismatic cast is more than up to helping him bring it to life. It might not be the very best spy movie of the year, but as far as capturing the essence of what made the genre so great to begin with goes, Agent Cavill takes the cake.